Art and Gratitude

Years before I first encountered a palm tree, decades before I found myself entranced by the watery ribbons of azure, lapis and turquoise entwined around and through the chain of Caribbean islands, I passed through shadows of tangled bougainvillea and tumbling poinciana into a world of tropical dreams. There, I discovered Winslow Homer and his art.

One of America’s premier watercolorists, Homer (1836-1910) moved from New York to Prout’s Neck, Maine in the summer of 1883. His work makes clear his love of the New England coast, yet he often vacationed in Florida, Bermuda and the Caribbean. His mastery of his medium and his unique vision of the islands produced exquisite renderings of sun-drenched homes, synchronized palms and great, vivid falls of blossoms that seem touched with scent even on the printed page. Continue reading

Claude Monet ~ Alive & Well in Mississippi

Highlighted by savvy museum curators and hawked within an inch of their beautiful lives by mass-market retailers and online poster-and-frame shops, the French Impressionists remain popular painters.  Once derided and criticized, their landscapes, serial studies and portraits are as pleasing to the art establishment as they are accessible to people who just want a pretty picture on their wall. It’s easy to imagine Mssrs. Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Cézanne and Manet (late to the movement, but influential in its inception) sitting around a celestial hillside, watching the play of light on the  clouds and congratulating themselves on their remarkable staying power.

Less concerned with realistic form than with natural light, atmosphere and color, the Impressionists sought to paint the world as they perceived it rather than in accordance with conceptual guidelines.  In its brief online overview of the movement, the Metropolitan Museum of Art  notes that,Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris) exhibited in 1874, gave the Impressionist movement its name when the critic Louis Leroy accused it of being a sketch or “impression,” and not a finished painting.”

“It demonstrates the techniques many of the independent artists adopted: short, broken brushstrokes that barely convey forms, pure unblended colors, and an emphasis on the effects of light. Rather than neutral white, grays, and blacks, Impressionists often rendered shadows and highlights in color. The artists’ loose brushwork gives an effect of spontaneity and effortlessness that masks their often carefully constructed compositions.” 

Claude Monet ~ Impression, Sunrise

Traditional landscape artists tended to depict the individual phenomena of the natural world – leaves, blossoms, blades of grass – as carefully as an illustrator and with an eye to accuracy.  Monet, on the other hand, wanted to paint what he saw ~ not separate leaves or discrete blossoms, but splashes of constantly changing color and light.  According to William Seitz, art historian and author of the Monet volume for the Masters of Art series, “It is in this context that we must understand his desire to see the world through the eyes of a man born blind who had suddenly gained his sight: as a pattern of nameless color patches.” 

Reading his words, I can’t help but wonder if Seitz knew of Marius von Senden’s 1932 study called Space and Sight.  Quoted extensively in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, von Senden had collected stories of men and women blind since birth who regained their sight with newly available cataract surgery.  For most, it was a difficult transition, full of necessary learning.  As von Senden puts it, for the newly sighted, “Space ends with visual space…with color patches that happen to bound his view.” 

Beginning with Manet, the  idea of “color patches” was integral to the development of the impressionist vision, and it’s entirely possible that von Senden picked up the phrase from the painters themselves.  In any event, it‘s easy to imagine a painter like Monet roaming the countryside with his easel and palette, painting whatever he happened upon and in the process giving us a record of the world informed by these new techniques and a unique vision. 

In his award-winning book,  The Impressionist Garden, Derek Fell notes the Impressionists’ commitment to “capture and record the fleeting moment” through their brushstrokes.  Perhaps the development of photography and the new ability to take “snap shots” influenced their thinking.  The phrase “fleeting moment” recalls photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous commitment to his own “decisive moment”.  Whether Monet’s reflections on his art were known to Bresson I can’t say, but the lives of Monet (d.1926) and Bresson (b.1908) briefly overlapped, they experienced the same technological advances and no doubt shared some of the same artistic concerns.   


Monet’s Garden at Giverny

In 1883 Claude Monet moved to Giverny,  and began to develop his garden.  In the process, nothing escaped his attention.  As avid a gardener as painter, his legacy still lives in the water-lily ponds, wisteria-clad Japanese bridge and grand central allée strewn with nasturtiums.  Just as lovely is the collection of paths and beds in the walled Clos Normand, the large, traditional Normandy flower garden just outside the house. When Monet acquired the old farmhouse in 1890, he sacrified an old and tired orchard in order to plant new gardens and install the custom-designed metal hoops and pergolas that carried his  roses and clematis.  

Eventually, he turned his attention to the water garden.  He rerouted a river, selected hybrid water lilies for their color and designed his bridge all in a deliberate act of creation – he was an artist creating his own subject.  He left nothing to chance. Renoir may have built a glass-walled studio in his garden in order to paint his beloved olive trees, but Monet commissioned a studio boat, the better to paint his water lilies.

Claude Monet  ~ Le Bateau-atelier   1876

“Apart from painting and gardening, I’m not good at anything,” Monet once remarked.  Amusing self-deprecation aside, his talents in both areas resulted in the creation of the garden at Giverny. Composed as if it were a painting and over time the subject of much of his best work, it is considered by many painters and gardeners alike to be his greatest legacy – as beautiful, inspirational and pervasive in its later influence as it was for Monet himself.   

Until my recent trip to Mississippi, I hadn’t fully appreciated the significance of Monet’s double role in shaping our vision of the world. Fairly adept at recognizing his work as a painter, I’d never considered the possibility that his life as a gardener and nurturer of the very world that informed his work might someday affect my own perception of the landscape.

Imagine my surprise when I turned down a  muddy gravel road in the midst of the old Doro Plantation, halfway betweeen a clapboard house flying the Confederate flag and the fishing shacks moored along the levee, only to discover a landscape so purely impressionistic it was hard to believe it wasn’t already on canvas. Stopped in my tracks by what appeared to be rippling curtains of white wisteria hanging from the heavens, I decided to disregard the likelihood of snakes and the possibility of tetanus. Scrambling and tumbling my way across half-buried barbed wire and through piles of fallen brush into the old pecan orchard, I found my footing and looked up in astonishment.  

It wasn’t that the orchard reminded me of Monet, it was as though Monet already had been there, dappling the leaves with light, capturing the pristine translucence of new growth and then washing the world’s canvas with a sheen of new rain and unnameable colors.  I’d have been less astonished had I walked into Monet’s studio and discovered the canvases suddenly alive, or walked into his garden and surprised him painting a few new shrubs into place.

In Giverny, Monet constructed a garden for himself.  That day on the Doro Plantation, where accidents of nature and history had rerouted the Mississippi, reshaped the land and left a secret, unexpected collection of trees, flowers and grasses to shimmer in the springtime afternoon, the only thing missing was the artist himself, to record the miraculous beauty of that first impression.

Doro Plantation ~ The Pecan Orchard in Spring


 Doro Plantation ~ Wisteria Drifts

Doro Plantation ~ Hidden Lavender 


 Doro Plantation ~ Turning of the Season

Looking at the photographs today, I see them primarily as photographs, snapshots, lovely compositions in their own right and touching reminders of those unexpected bits of beauty found tucked away into the silence of a Mississippi afternoon. 

But now and then I see again the play of light, and feel the warming breeze, and catch my heart leaping up as the first impression comes back.  Breathless, I re-experience a truth as unexpected as the plantation orchard.  Once ~ just once, or at least once ~ I was granted the privilege to see the world as Claude Monet would have seen it -tumbled into  light, drenched with atmosphere, and patched with color so piercingly pure no response is possible except to be astonished by what Monet spent his lifetime revealing – that brushes, paint and canvas are sufficient to capture first impressions for a lifetime of enjoyment.


Doro Plantation – Daffodil Bridge


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Pens and Pics ~ A Cautionary Tale

The six words came first, like a little roadmap found crinkled under the seat of a car, or the sight of a curious, six-legged creature fleeing over the horizon.   Even the right word takes effort, I thought, the words so clear, so absolute and certain I looked around to see who might have spoken.  Seeing no one, yet possessed by a sudden, compulsive urge  to hold the words captive, to prevent their escape into the thicket of a mind overgrown with phrases like “don’t forget the milk” and “be sure to mail that check”, I looked around for tools to help me construct a cage.

The tools needed, of course, were paper and pencil, or pen.  Ubiquitous in human homes and offices, they can be hard to come by on isolated docks where language means the chatter and chirr of gulls.  Digging around beneath the birds’ inquisitive stares, I finally found a pen under the spare tire in my car’s trunk, laughing that I’d found one at all.  The pen, a white ballpoint imprinted with the LaQuinta logo, looked as though it had knocked around the car for some time, but it worked. Paper was less of a problem.   Junk mail envelopes in the car’s trash were abundant, as were the backs of  business cards , but there on the dock was all the paper I needed.   Pieces of used sandpaper five inches  square and smooth on the back were just big enough for those six words and the title which eventually presented itself: The Task at Hand.  Over the course of several days, words and phrases were added and removed, arranged and stacked and rearranged until at last I brought my little pile of sandpaper home and transcribed the words which gave this blog an identity and purpose.

The fact that I’d written my first poem on sandpaper didn’t seem in the least odd until I began attending a local writers’ group. A few members appeared at meetings with spiral-bound notebooks  and ball point pens straight off the drugstore shelf.   Far more had lovely, leather-bound journals or exquisite notebooks with covers of hand-made paper.   Filled with thick, creamy pages that absorbed ink in an instant or leaves of tissue so delicate they made the very act of writing seem an assault, they were perfect companions for pens far more elegant than my lowly trunk-dweller.  I hadn’t used a real pen in years, but here they were in abundance, their gold nibs, tiny enameled bodies, silver and gold engravings and perfect proportions luscious and appealing.

Before and after the meetings, there was as much talk of pens and paper as about words.  Writers talked about their trips to the stationers like explorers eagerly cataloguing acquisitions of rare butterflies.  Papyrus, vellum, marbeled or mulberry, the papers were rumored to imbue the most pedestrian words with weight and substance.  As for the pens,  it seemed one never was enough.  One writer used only a gold Cross pen for prose,  a Monteverde with purple ink for poetry and a nice rollerball for editing.  Montblanc was a favoite, Conklin esteemed, Montegrappa coveted.  My LaQuinta freebie hid in my purse, embarassed and chagrined.

Certainly there is legitimate pleasure to be taken in artfully produced journals, a paper smooth and heavy to the touch and the flow of ink, a sensuous pleasure that only increases when combined with good coffee, a little time for thought, a window from which to gaze.   When that pleasure slides toward obsession, as it can, it suggests something more – an unspoken conviction that if only one could find the right paper, the perfect pen, the perfectly bound notebook, writing itself would become easier, more fluid, more richly textured and memorable. 

The longing of some writers for these perfect tools is very much akin to the hunger for a perfect setting in which to write.   “I can’t write at home,” says one. “I see the chores needing to be done and become distracted.”    Another fusses, “I only can write in complete solitude.” Some can’t write at night, or in the morning, or in public or facing south.  Some need windows, or beaches or mountain cabins. Others prefer a cafe setting, or a certain, comfortable couch.  I once heard a fellow say, “When I retire, I’m going to have a teak desk, with a beautiful sheen, and a room in muted colors with natural fabrics, and no telephone.  Then, I’ll be able to write.”

I hope he can.  And yet, I remember Annie Dillard’s words on the subject in her marvelous On Writing.  She says, “Appealing work places are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.  When I furnished this study seven years ago, I pushed the long desk against a blank wall, so I could not see from either window…  Once, fifteen years ago, I wrote in a cinder block cell over  a parking lot. It overlooked a tar and gravel roof.  This pine shed under trees is not quite so good as the cinder block study was, but it will do.”

While Ms. Dillard’s thoughts might be taken as the strange rantings of a mystical poet, William Zinsser is all prose, and his opinion hardly differs. In his introduction to the 2006 edition of the classic On Writing Well, Zinsser mentions a photograph of E.B. White which hung in his office.  Taken by Jill Krementz, it’s described by Zinsser in this way: 

 “A white-haired man is sitting on a plain wooden bench at a plain wooden table – three boards nailed to four legs – in a small boathouse. The window is open to a view across the water.  White is typing on a manual typewriter, and the only other objects are an ashtray and a nail keg.  The keg, I don’t have to be told, is his wastebasket.”   Zinsser goes on to add, “White has everything he needs: a writing implement, a piece of paper, and a receptacle for all the sentences that didn’t come out the way he wanted them to.” 

The willingness to imbue simple tools with mysterious powers and to confuse the process of creating art with the ability of its product to intrique, inspire and initiate dialogue is not limited to the writers among us.  A delightful parable of technology, vision, and imagination  comes from painter and photographer Michael Maurer Smith, who tells the story of Snapper’s Disappointment in his blog, Dissent Decree.  As Michael tells it,

Snapper figured if he bought the best he’d be the best. So he made the call and ordered himself one of the finest digital single lens reflex cameras money could buy. This puppy came with 24.5 megapixel full-frame capability, a magnesium body shell, a carbon fiber composite shutter, a 922,000 pixel LCD monitor, and it could shoot 7 frames per second.

Snapper took some time to familiarize himself with his new treasure, with all of its menus and buttons, but found himself increasingly anxious as he realized he hadn’t a clue where to begin taking actual photographs, or why he might choose one subject over another.  Eventually, Michael tells us, as Snapper searched for answers he stumbled upon Henri Cartier-Bresson and the amazements of a different sort of photography.

“Bresson had made his pictures using a completely manual camera—something called a Leica. It had no auto focus, auto exposure or zoom lens. The label also said Bresson rarely used flash. Snapper was dumbfounded. ‘How could Bresson make such stunning photographs using such simple technology?’…

…Snapper was disappointed. The advertising had promised him that the technology built into his new camera would assure great photographs with every click of the shutter. But after seeing Bresson’s work it sure seemed like there was a lot more to photography than just the camera.”

Indeed.  And in his own delightful way, Michael Maurer Smith not only shows us how Snapper resolves his issues, he uses the tale to drive home a point I’ve suspected all along.  The writer searching for a magic pen, the photographer waiting for the perfect technology, the painter constrained by the quality of light ~ all have forgotten a basic truth of the creative process.  It is grounded not in technology and technique, but in what Faulkner in his Nobel Prize speech called “the agony and sweat of the human spirit.”  It is pursued “not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”

As the logician would say, the tools of any art are necessary but not sufficient for beauty and meaning to emerge.  And however well we succeed, no matter how far short of our goal we may fall, the words of this slightly amended proverb hold true: it is a poor artist who blames the tools. 

You just have to live, and then life will give you photographs.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson


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And Many Thanks to oh! of WordPress and Sandiquiz of WeatherUnderground and Flickr, both of whom used the proverb “It is a poor workman who blames his tools” within a week of each other and thus started me down this road.  Welcome to Team Muse, and many thanks for your posts and comments!

Confident Vision: Barack Obama & The Green Bear

References to “that vision thing”, now common in political discourse, tend to irritate me. First used during the 1988 campaign by Republican presidential candidate  George Bush, the phrase itself is dismissive, reducing a powerful force in human life and history to little more than a marketing ploy. “Without a vision the people perish”, says Proverbs, but the vision of peace and justice held up by Biblical prophets and Wisdom literature has very little to do with the shallow, ephemeral “vision thing” offered by dissembling  politicians and politically opportunistic spinmeisters who seem to enjoy working  both sides of the national street.

Vision, of course, refers not only to the content of what we see, but to the way in which we see it.   Our envisioning of reality tends to be idiosyncratic and malleable, shaped by our sensitivities and preferences as well as our convictions about how the world is, or ought to be.

Imagine, for example, four friends who just have shared a day on the beach. Back at their rented cottage, feet propped on weathered railings and drinks in hand, they watch drifting sand swirl off dunes as the wind stiffens and a neighbor wanders over.   Reaching for a beer as he settles onto the top step, he asks, “Well, how was it?  Have a good day?” Continue reading

Speaking My Heart – Writing, Vision and Truth


José Saramago, Portuguese novelist and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, once remarked,  “In effect I am not a novelist, but rather a failed essayist who started to write novels because I didn’t know how to write essays.”  Implicit in his remarks is a refutation of the easy assumption that people write essays  because they are less difficult than novels.  They are shorter, to be sure, and differently structured.  But ease of writing is not necessarily one of their virtues, particularly when the so-called personal essay is involved.

In her Write on Wednesday prompt this week, Becca asks, “Do you enjoy reading and writing personal essays?”  The fact is I do – primarily because I’m most interested in exploring the world around me, rather than inventing a fictional world from whole cloth.  I’m intrigued by the challenges posed when attempting to communicate rich, densely-textured realities through an apparently simple form, and I prefer the freedom to move from one topic to another as my attention is engaged, rather than devoting months or years to the same project.

Alain de Botton, another prolific essayist whose The Art of Travel is one of my favorites, says, “I am conscious of trying to stretch the boundaries of non-fiction writing. It’s always surprised me how little attention many non-fiction writers pay to the formal aspects of their work.”

He goes on, “I passionately believe it’s not just what you say that counts, it’s also how you say it – the success of your argument critically depends on your manner of presenting it.”

The word essay  itself comes from the French essayer, which means “to try”.   Trying to communicate the richness of reality can be difficult at best.  When Anita Diamant, in her introduction to Pitching My Tent, writes that her challenge as an essayist was “to pay closer-than-average attention and then shape…experiences and reactions into entertaining prose”, she suggests what I have come to believe: that vision comes first.  Continue reading